One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits of the nineties was “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley,” wherein a blonde-wigged, cardigan-clad Al Franken sat before a mirror reminding himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Franken has said his character was born out of a visit to a twelve-step meeting, but it’s just as easy to imagine Stuart Smalley watching Oprah while reading The Secret.
The power of positive thinking has had many champions since preacher and author Norman Vincent Peale published his 1952 bestseller of that title. The mass popularity of contemporary proponents, like Deepak Chopra, Scientology, Abraham-Hicks, and The Secret, suggests that the idea of self-actualization has finally been liberated from its New Age, fringe connotations. Many people today accept that their attitudes shape their lives in concrete and subtle ways. We know negative thinking can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but when it comes to turning that frown upside down, we still need a little self-help.
Why Negative Thinking Is Bad for Us
With the economy down the tubes, unemployment at an all-time high, and the chances of making it in a marriage about the same as flipping a coin, it’s easy to get caught on the hamster wheel of negative thinking. However, scientific studies have shown succumbing to negativity can actually make things worse. People who ruminate on negative thoughts are, unsurprisingly, generally unhappier than their positive counterparts. They tend to have higher levels of stress, impaired problem-solving skills, lower energy, weaker immune systems, lower productivity, and less successful relationships.
Negative thinking can distort our perception of situations. Negative thinkers tend to overgeneralize, compare, label, magnify or minimize, and jump to conclusions. Consider the wealthy businessman who laments to his therapist that he will make only one million dollars this year rather than twenty. Compare this to the story of the little boy who gleefully digs through a room full of manure because he is convinced where there is manure, there is a pony. Our attitudes are a matter of how we mentally frame situations.
Combating Negative Thinking
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a systematic, goal-oriented branch of psychotherapy used to treat a variety of psychiatric disorders like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Studies have shown it actually changes the function and neural structure of the brain. There are many lessons that can be taken from CBT’s approach when it comes to retraining our brains away from negative thoughts. This is an adapted step-by-step process for dealing with persistent negativity:
- Identify the negative thought pattern.
- As soon as a negative thought arises, acknowledge it. Sometimes writing it down gives a more rational perspective. It’s important not to blame yourself for having these thoughts—guilt only increases negativity.
- Consciously reject the negative thought.
- Reframe the situation, and replace the negative reaction with a positive alternative. This is not about cheering yourself up with hollow affirmations. Repeating “I am the hottest thing this town has ever seen,” may divert your attention, but it is not likely to have long-term positive effects if you don’t truly believe it. Stay realistic, but look on the bright side.
Suppose your boyfriend breaks up with you. You’re consumed with negative thoughts. Perhaps you blame yourself for the breakup, convinced it really is you, not him. The very idea of rejoining the singles scene makes you break out in hives. How will you ever meet someone else? Hold it right there. Recognize these negative thoughts. Write them down to see if they measure up against reality when staring you in the face. Chances are your ex played a part in the meltdown of the relationship as well. Being single again may be daunting—that is valid—but do you truly believe you’ll end up a spinster? Reframe the situation. You’ve escaped from a relationship that wasn’t working, freeing you up to meet Mr. Right. To top it off, you’ve learned a lot about yourself and your expectations for a relationship. This is a positive thing.
Another example: you lose your job. Perhaps your first thought is resentment at a time when you’ve committed to the company only to be repaid by being let go. Recognize the negative thought, reject it, and reframe the situation in this light: Look at how much you’ve learned in your job. You have connections and a solid entry for your resume as you go out in search of a new, perhaps more fulfilling, job.
When it comes to combating negative thinking, always remember the Golden Rule—and reverse it: treat yourself as you would others. If a friend were in a similar situation, would you encourage the same negative response? Probably not.
How to Think Positively
How many times have you heard the phrase “practice makes perfect?” It applies to positive thinking as well. Happiness must be cultivated, and luckily there’s an entire shed of tools out there to help you. Sonja Lyubomirsky is a researcher of positive psychology and the author of the book, The How of Happiness. She has identified at least twelve intentional activities that empirically enhance happiness—activities like expressing gratitude, setting goals, and, of course, practicing optimism. The key word, however, is practice. “It really has to be regular,” says Lyubomirsky. “It’s a little bit like taking a drug—it stops being effective when you stop taking it.” For some people, she says, that means every day, for others once a week will do.
But for a generation for whom the physical object of a book seems like an anachronism, a trip to the self-help section of the bookstore may seem off-putting, not to mention trying to crack that book every day. This is why Lyubomirsky worked with a company called Signal Patterns to adapt her book into the new Live Happy iPhone application. Based on a user’s self-described preferences and personality, the application recommends phone-friendly activities—like recording goals, sending a direct expression of gratitude to someone, or savoring a happy picture—that will improve the user’s outlook. “It’s a little buddy that reminds you to do it and keeps track of your happiness,” explains Lyubomirsky. And already it’s receiving rave reviews.
Recognizing negative thought patterns and choosing positive alternatives is no longer crunchy California stuff for the self-help gurus and Hollywood hipsters. Whether it’s through a gratitude journal, visualization exercises, an inspiring iPhone app, or Stuart Smalley-esque daily affirmations, we could all use a little sunshine in our lives—at the very least some silver linings. But the change starts with you.